Children’s exposure to domestic violence and the everlasting effects it can have on them into adulthood and relationships are being increasingly acknowledged.
A child who watches or listens to a fight between family members can be emotionally traumatised for the rest of their life, and professionals warn it can increase their chances of ending up in an abusive relationship or becoming a perpetrator themselves.
Women who have experienced domestic violence as children have spoken out about how it has effected their own adult relationships in hope that it will help other women who have experienced similar situations.
Domestic violence victim, Claire*, said she experienced domestic violence in her home from the age of nine and it still affects her today.
“I was nine when it became serious; my father was abusive to my mother, mainly because he was an alcoholic,” Claire said.
“I wasn’t removed from the violence and my father and mother didn’t split up until I was 15.”
Claire said even years after witnessing the abuse her father inflicted on her mother, she experiences issues as a result of it, sometimes with her partner.
“I have anxiety in our relationship, I can’t stand raised voices and a few times I have flinched when he comes towards me affectionately,” Claire said.
Unfortunately Claire is among the one in five Australian women who have or will experience domestic violence in their lifetime.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics states about one quarter of women and half of men who have experienced domestic violence have never told anyone about it.
In 2012, an estimated 25 percent of all women aged 18 years and over and 14 percent of all men aged 18 years and over had experienced emotional abuse by an intimate partner since the age of 15.
Clinical Psychologist, Dr Jane Weiss has experience dealing with domestic violence victims and said a lot of the problems people experience in their current relationships are due to experiences from childhood.
“Sometimes through witnessing the parents conflict or through direct abuse towards them, they aren’t even aware that happened to them,” Dr Weiss said.
“There’s often a sense that they’ve normalised it somehow or they’ve just gotten on with life and not thought about it too much until they’ve had their own children and realised.
“It kind of gets normalised as a way of relating.”
Dr Weiss also said another issue is adults who grow up with domestic violence in the home as children are more likely to endure bad behaviour.
“There can be a high tolerance of that behaviour in relationships because of that background, so behaviours that are deemed unacceptable in a relationship are still not accepted but able to be tolerated,” Dr Weiss said.
“Then the desire is always to try to repair your past through your current relationship….so it doesn’t feel as bad anymore”.
Domestic violence victim, Susan* said she experienced violence in her home throughout her childhood and into her adulthood.
Susan found herself going for the wrong guys when she was younger and said she doesn’t doubt this was because of her upbringing.
“The first two men I dated in high school were from domestic violence backgrounds themselves,” Susan said.
“One of them had a substance abuse problem because of the emotional and physical abuse he had suffered at the hands of his step dad and the other still had whip marks and scars from getting stabbed by his abusive uncle as a child.”
Susan said the men were both troubled which led them to be emotionally and sometimes physically abusive towards her.
“I don’t doubt for a second that I was drawn to these men because of our shared background,” Susan said.
Susan experienced abuse from her stepfather growing up and said her earliest memory was when she was only four.
“One of my earliest memories is of my mum being held against the wall and strangled by my step dad during an argument, I was four years old,” Susan said.
“When it came to me, my step dad began as emotionally abusive.”
Susan described his increasing physical abuse, where he would force feed her until she vomited, hit her repeatedly and threaten her with more severe violence if she cried or made a sound.
“It escalated to the point that when I was eight years old, he hit me so hard, I got thrown backwards and my head slammed against the corner of a doorway and I passed out,” Susan said.
“The abuse continued until I was 16 years old.
“I was never removed from it, I used to think that the way my step dad treated my mum, my siblings and I was normal, it’s not until I was a teenager that I realised it wasn’t.”
Susan said due to her upbringing she had a very difficult time understanding what a normal, healthy adult relationship looked like.
“Having an unhealthy relationship with the only father figure I had meant that by the time I was a teenager and began dating, I had no idea what a healthy relationship with a man was supposed to look like,” Susan said.
“I also had very poor self-esteem because of my stepdad constantly telling me I was dumb, ugly and good for nothing so I didn’t have very high standards.”
Susan admitted to nearly committing suicide when she was 17 after the years of abuse, danger and hurt.
“This was a turning point for me, it took a few tries, a lot of introspection and self-growth but, finally, by the time I was 18, I was able to build myself back up and make better choices in men,” Susan said.
Dr Weiss said this is quite often the case when it comes to relationships where domestic violence was experienced as a child.
“Later in life once you start in your adult relationships, in some ways unfortunately, there’s often the mistake that has to be made before you realise what’s going on,” Dr Weiss said.
“Often, it is that sort of relationship where you start to realise and say I really shouldn’t be here and I’ve got to get out.”
Luckily for Susan she learnt to realise the men she was dating were not acting in an appropriate manner.
“I learned to stay away from men who had grown up in abusive homes and I learned that I was worth a lot more than what I was told when I was a child,” Susan said.
“Since graduating from high-school and leaving home, I have dated kind, caring, and nurturing men who treat me the way I deserve to be treated.”
Susan has zero tolerance for any form of violence and avoids “bad boys”.
“I have been through enough to know better than to engage with people that are obviously no good for me,” Susan said.
Susan is proud that today she is dating a man who is nothing like her stepfather.
“I’m proud to say my current partner treats me like a queen and is nothing like my step dad, he is aware of my abusive background; it’s been difficult sharing some of these stories with him, especially because I still have ugly scars on my body and it makes it difficult to hide from him, but he constantly reassures me that I am safe with him and that he would never hurt me,” Susan said.
Like Susan Lisa* experienced domestic violence as a child, and said she was born with a lot of health issues due to the stress her mother was under whilst pregnant, from the abuse her father committed.
She stopped seeing her father when she was 12 due to the Department of Child Safety stepping in, but there have been severe side effects due to what she witnessed growing up.
“I have just turned 20 and have never had a real relationship; I don’t trust people at all,” Lisa said.
“The abuse I went through was physical, emotional and also sexual so this is why I find it so hard to get close to anyone.
“As soon as I start having real feelings for someone I run in the opposite direction and completely cut off communication.”
Lisa said she is currently single due to her traumatic upbringing and believes her issues with trust are the main reasons stopping her.
“I feel like if the person that was meant to love me the most and treat me like a princess could do what he did to me, then what is stopping someone else from doing the same?” Lisa said.
“I was seeing someone up until a month or two ago but cut communication with him when I recognised the signs.”
Lisa is hoping that there will be more discussion on the effects of domestic violence on children.
“It is about time some awareness is bought to DV and the effect it has on children.”
“It isn’t fair for any child to go through,” Lisa said.
Holistic physiologist, Shane Trujillo said unfortunately the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to domestic violence around children.
“At a young age, you are not safe and very reliant on the surroundings, but when that changes to fear, your body automatically goes into a frozen state and this stays in your muscles, nervous system and can stay there forever if you don’t address it,” Mr Trujillo said.
“If you grow up and see your father abusing your mother, as sad as it sounds, this sits with you as a normal thing to happen.
“Then when that child grows up and if it’s a boy and he sees his father hitting his mother, there is more chance he will grow up to hit his wife himself, if that’s what the circumstances were.”
According to Mr Trujillo, the easiest way to resolve problems that have occurred due to domestic violence as a child is to relive the experience, as hard as this may sound.
“The easiest way to kind of reconcile it is to relive the experience and you’ve got to talk yourself through it and be the mother or big brother to yourself and tell yourself it’s alright, it was nobody’s fault,” Mr Trujillo said.
“You can’t forget it about it and just bury it because then it will stay with you for the rest of your life.”
Child domestic violence victims are often called the “silent” victims due to not speaking out or not having someone to turn to when abuse occurs in their home.
Dr Weiss believes that education in schools is a step in the right direction, however it wont fix the problem entirely.
“Education in schools will certainly help prevent domestic violence, but if a child is experiencing domestic violence already, education at school isn’t going to make much difference,” Dr Weiss said.
“Where there is domestic violence there is usually secrecy and the child and often the mother are quite often disempowered to reveal it and so you often find that unless the school picks it up themselves through the child’s behaviour or through something that’s happened to the child, nothing will eventuate from education, it just wont have an impact,” Dr Weiss said.
Dr Weiss said schools are improving in the process of identifying children experiencing domestic violence however believes there is still a lot more that needs to be done.
“I supervise a lot of other psychologists working in schools, both primary and secondary, and if by no means sorted at all, there are still a lot of children out there that are experiencing domestic violence in their homes on a day to day basis and are suffering the consequences,” Dr Weiss said.
“Often even when it is dealt with through protective services it doesn’t change as much as there isn’t a lot of alternatives, unless the woman leaves.”
Today Susan feels proud to no longer feel like the vulnerable and insecure person she once was in high school, a feeling that can hopefully be obtained by other child victims of domestic violence.
“I feel extremely confident, capable and strong now,” Susan said.
“This didn’t happen over night, it took years of self-growth, not to mention I am still working through some issues.
“I feel empowered by my resolve to turn the negatives in my life into positives, it’s what drives me and makes me so passionate in everything that I do.”
Victims of domestic violence hope that by speaking out, people who need help will obtain it and that children of domestic violence are no longer the “silent” or “forgotten” victims, but instead are remembered and heard.
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the source.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence in any capacity you should reach out for support.
In an emergency dial 000